Current midnight office situation with whiteboard

Ohio. The windows are open, summer is here, and I sent a newsletter yesterday. The sun went down at 8:35 tonight, and this bit in Stephen King’s Joyland struck a nerve:

When you’re twenty-one, life is a roadmap. It’s only when you get to be twenty-five or so that you begin to suspect you’ve been looking at the map upside down, and not until you’re forty are you entirely sure. By the time you’re sixty, take it from me, you’re fucking lost.

Yeah, my map is upside down, inscrutable, and probably for a different planet. But I bought a whiteboard yesterday. Maybe this will help. I put a lot of faith in office products to solve my existential problems.

I’ve been reading too many dreary new literary novels lately, so I’ve retreated to Stephen King for a palette cleanser. It’s nice to be reminded that it’s possible to write outlandish, frightening, even bloody things while still liking people and having some faith in the human project.

Tonight I’m putting my faith in Civilistjävel!, which is Swedish for “Civilian Bastard.” That’s all anyone knows about this shadowy outfit, which releases hyper-limited vinyl without much of a digital trace. Some say these records are private tapes unearthed from the 1990s, and their press releases deploy heavyweight phrases like “lonesome, levitating kosmische themes” and “a dronal, dubwise, heavily psychoactive minimal techno realm.” 

Regardless of where these records fit in space and time, they’re a welcome throwback to techno’s ghost-in-the-machine ethos circa early 90s Basic Channel, Studio 1, and Plastikman. And I’m grateful to Sasha Frere-Jones‘s weekly dispatch for alerting me to a proper new Civilistjävel! release available via Bandcamp.

Low-slung and roomy, this is excellent music for the small hours, especially A2 and B1. Any recommendations for more mysterious music in a similar vein are much appreciated.

Civilistjävel! – A2

Järnnätter | Felt, 2022 | Bandcamp

Update: I just came across this interview with Civilistjävel!, posted a few days ago. It’s a nice piece, but I’m disappointed there’s one less mystery in the world.

I put together a soundtrack to accompany the exhibition of Candy Chang’s Before I Die project at Wonderspaces.

Built from a bass tone, some vapor, and a cassette tape of Candy reading the responses from visitors, it’s a spare, whispery thing designed to flicker around a gallery. But I think it also performs nicely in headphones while working, reading, or contemplating one’s final moments. As I recorded this, I kept thinking about the phrase “a glitch in the ego death.”

James A. Reeves – A Soundtrack for Before I Die

2022 | Bandcamp

The Night of the Hunter (1955) opens with the disembodied heads of five children floating in the cosmos and gets weirder from there. 

When we meet Robert Mitchum’s murderous preacher, he’s puttering along in a stolen car, talking to God. “Sometimes I wonder if you really understand,” he says. “Not that you mind the killing. Your book is full of killing. But there are things you do hate, Lord: perfume-smellin’ things, lacy things, things with curly hair. There are too many of them. Can’t kill the world.”

Here is America’s puritanical brainpan, a freaky portrait of the neurotic Christian obsession with sex, its hatred of women, and how dogmatic certainty can be honed into frightening violence. When Mitchum ogles a stripper, a switchblade erupts in his pocket.

Then style enters the scene: the love/hate tattoos that inspired Radio Raheem’s four-finger rings; a bedroom that belongs in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with its brute angles and unnatural light; midnight scenes along the river unfold beneath the stillborn skies of a soundstage while bullfrogs, rabbits, owls, and turtles watch from the shoreline; a woman’s watery grave looks disturbingly peaceful, like a snapshot from a dream.

The Night of the Hunter, dir. Charles Laughton

As if skittish of the dark terrain it lays out, the film retreats into a Scooby-Doo mood. Soon Mitchum’s threatening precocious children and hunting down a rag-doll stuffed with cash, which becomes almost comic until Lilian Gish lays down the hammer between speeches about Moses and the Massacre of the Innocents. It’s a lot of movie: a gothic sprawl of the sinister and the absurd, much of it soaked in Biblical verse punctuated by the occasional startling line: “And that slit in her throat, like she had an extra mouth.” This odd combination of the profane, the ridiculous, and the pious leaves The Night of the Hunter nattering at the mind—perhaps because we know faith can fuel all three conditions.

Symmetry – The Hunt

The Messenger | Italians Do It Better, 2013 | More

For a nice music video, pair this song with this compendium of the best shots from The Night of the Hunter.

Current desk situation

Ohio. A gloomy Wednesday with highs near 60. The sun went down at 8:30, there’s a waxing crescent moon, and I’m reading about God.

Here’s my first memory of God: I was five or six years old, crouched on the kitchen floor and feverishly rubbing a white crayon into a dark blue piece of construction paper. I still remember feeling a little crazy while doing this. I titled the resulting smudge “God” in the bottom right corner. The strongest part of this memory is feeling certain I’d uncovered what God looked like and not understanding why my parents weren’t more impressed with it.

My blurry scribble came to mind while reading Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s God: An Anatomy, which digs into the origins of the Judeo-Christian deity as a fleshy, breathing creature who was just as messy as the rest of us, prone to laughter, jealousy, and despair. He had parents (El and Athirat), and he moved through the world like we do, only on a grander scale. I like how Stavrakopoulou captures the psychology of three thousand years ago:

The cosmic membrane separating the earthly from the otherworldly was highly porous and malleable, so that divinity in all its myriad forms could break through into the world of humans, whether it was perceived as a strange scent on the wind, a fleeting shape glimpsed from the corner of the eye, or felt at a powerful place in the landscape. But divinity was at its most tangible when materialized in images of the gods.

So I’ve been thinking about the cosmic membrane lately.

Children’s Ice Cream – By the Hand of God

Mind Expansion, 1996

See also: Southeast of Saturn, a much-needed compilation of Michigan space rock from the 90s.

Somewhere in New Mexico, 2013

They look less and less like recognizable humans, these billionaires buying everything we care about: books and newspapers, transportation and the moon. And now Twitter. 

I have no moral objections here. Perhaps I should, but I’m not sure if Twitter was any more righteous when it was governed by shadow corporations that bankrolled nuclear weapons and cluster munitions. And maybe it’s better if social media is delisted from Wall Street and no longer pressured to maximize revenue through attention hijacking and outrage mechanics. But now that this space I once loved belongs to an unstable billionaire, maybe it’s the kick in the seat I need to rethink how I spend my dwindling time on this planet and who it serves.

We tend to talk about social media in binary terms—follow/unfollow, like/block, share/mute—which warps our thinking and, not coincidentally, mirrors the language of addiction. We talk about quitting, even detoxing from social media. I’ve never heard someone say, “I’ll just check it on Wednesday afternoons.” And like an addict, I’ve been languishing in the uneasy state of knowing Twitter is terrible for me, yet using it anyway, hoping to rekindle the golden days of making new friends, exchanging minutiae, and getting turned on to new movies, music, and ideas. But the scene turned sour years ago. Now it feels like retching in the street.

And so, after fifteen years of broadcasting on somebody else’s airwaves, I’ve decided to let my channel rot. It’ll be a dead station, auto-posting hyperlinks to my own patch of the Information Superhighway until the lights go out. I’m not going to look at Twitter anymore.

Oh, but habits are so hard to break. My lizard brain is a ferocious beast. Whenever I get stuck in my work, my fingers twitch, eager to launch a new tab and type “tw…” for a dose of distraction or attention. I physically twitch. What on earth have I been doing to myself all these years? So I’ve had to block Twitter at the root level.

I’ll continue to tend my little garden here, maybe even compile some of the writing I’ve accumulated into small books. Something concrete. And I think I’ve managed to switch on the comments in case anyone wants to say hello or recommend a movie or a song.

Adam Arthur’s new live set for Interdimensional Transmissions is perfect concentration music for me: a long stretch of ambient drift that slowly gives way to sparkling synthetics that remind me I was once optimistic about a techno-future.

I’m somewhere over Greenland, and the sun will never go down because we’re flying west. I’m always in a heavy state when I see Greenland, usually red-eyed and emotionally shredded. Something is starting. Or ending. It’s a landmass associated with transitions and emergencies.

And still this foolish anxiety about flying, as if the airplane requires my constant vigilance to keep it in the sky. I’m better at flying at night, cocooned in some non-space and feeling sleek. In daylight, I’m too aware of being 36,000 feet above the planet, absorbing the judder of 500 miles per hour. A panic attack comes—I need to get off the plane now—and, as always, it goes. As my breath drags back to normal, I look down at the chunked ice in the ocean and consider the shape of my life when I return to the States.

C. and I are going to log some more time in Ohio while we figure out how to settle in the desert later this year, hopefully in the margins of Vegas. My life is weirdly open at the moment: no career, commitments, or clients. Maybe it’s finally time to start writing like it’s my job, at least until I run out of money. This idea inspires another bout of panic, but I try to pretend it’s excitement instead. Watching the ice and clouds scroll past my window, I concoct a routine: at least two hours of longhand writing before looking at a screen, then an hour or two of email and obligations before lunch. Then to the library for editing until five o’clock, when I’ll put my pencil down and go for a run or watch a movie before falling asleep with a book. A simple life. We’ll see how long it lasts.

DeepChord – Vantage Isle (Echospace Glacial)

Vantage Isle Sessions | Echospace [Detroit], 2007 | Bandcamp

We are quite probably dreaming all the time, but consciousness makes so much noise that we no longer hear the dream when awake.
—Carl Jung

In Greek mythology, dreams were often personified as Óneiroi, black-winged demons that entered our sleeping minds like bats, delivering messages from the gods. These creatures spoke to us in symbols, much like the language of cinema. From the nightmare logic of Un Chien Andalou to the hallucinatory atmospheres of Andrei Tarkovsky, films have evoked our nocturnal imaginations, and the term oneiric now describes the dreamlike state we enter when sitting in a movie theater.

The Nightly News is a cinema of the strange scenes of anxiety, desire, and other possible worlds that fill our heads each night. After collecting over one thousand handwritten dreams from students at the American School In London, Candy Chang and Reeves transformed the school’s underground courtyard into a theater dedicated to the visions that brew below our waking minds. Broadcast for nine hours each day, this video-audio installation invited visitors to rupture the day’s obligations with time in the dark, lying on black pillows and contemplating the community’s subconscious lives projected on 24-foot-wide drapes that cast reflections throughout the space, along with hundreds of handwritten responses in an illuminated well.

Themes emerged: we fall, we flee, and we search for answers. We can’t get away, our teeth fall out, and we are strangers in a strange land. The process of sifting through these scraps of writing conjures the act of recalling a dream, its logic just beyond the reach of language and thought, leaving us with only fragments: a room filled with sand / hallways in the sky / a pixellated hand / stabbed with a fork. Devoted to these intensely private yet universally recognizable symbols delivered to us each night by forces beyond our understanding, The Nightly News shows us that we’re all deeply weird creatures bound together by nerves, fantasy, and the unknown.

Video by James A. Reeves + Candy Chang
Photo by Candy Chang
Photo by Joe Harris
Photo by Lesley Yeo
Photo by Lesley Yeo
Photo by Lesley Yeo
Photo by Joe Harris
Timelapse video by Joe Harris
Photo by Candy Chang
Photo by Candy Chang
2022, The American School In London, London, England. Mixed media, 36′ x 36′ x 10′ space. Installation assistance by Graham ‘Titch’ Fort, Joe Harris, Shane Murdock, Dean Hoffland, Mick Fernandez, and Youcef Benhadi. Organizational assistance by Jen Kirstein, Dean Evans, Gavin Hughes, and Cosmo Murphy. This installation is supported by the Innovator-in-Residence Program at the American School In London.

Last day in London. Mostly cloudy skies with a high near seventy degrees while C. and I sat in the National Gallery, awaiting the results of our mandatory Covid tests so we could fly home. The possibility of containing this thing vanished years ago, yet America still believes the fictional boundaries of nations matter, so we installed a widget that verified our identities and had a man swab our nostrils. Then we sat among portraits of saints and gods, refreshing our telephones every few minutes, knowing our odds were fifty-fifty. At last, our screens turned green. We slapped high-five and did a quick tour of all the postcard sights we hadn’t yet seen: Big Ben, Tower Bridge, thousands of CCTV cameras, etc.

In the evening, we wandered into a service at Westminster Abbey, where we were seated next to a bust of William Blake, looking haunted and a little crazy. I saw his birthplace between an Indian restaurant and an expensive handbag store during my first days here. Now I was seated beneath his gaze while I admired the rituals of Christianity, particularly its acknowledgment that we’re imperfect: “We have sinned against thee and against our neighbor, in thought and word and deed, through negligence, through weakness, through our deliberate fault. We are heartily sorry.”

High voices filled the soaring canopies of stone while the names and faces of the famous dead surrounded us. Austen. Dickens. Newton. Darwin. Each time I go to church, I encounter something new. This time the priests washed people’s feet, and they burned so much incense our eyes watered. The Archdeacon was a woman who sermonized beautifully about “the body language of God” and how divine grace is manifested in the way we carry ourselves in the world. As far as I can tell, the Church of England preserves the mystery, guilt, and theatrics of Catholicism while draining its venom and dialing down the neurotic obsession with sex. If I ever join a religion, this might be the one— although I’d be joining for largely aesthetic reasons. But maybe these are enough.

James Murray – London Plane

Falling Backwards | Home Normal, 2018 | Bandcamp
Brighton + Autechre

York to Brighton. Sunny skies, highs in the low sixties, and the sun went down around eight o’clock. I fell hard for this seaside city of faded glamour that felt like the original signal for Atlantic City, Santa Monica, and Coney Island. Why is elegant decay more appealing than the gleaming new thing? Perhaps because it inspires sympathy, even a sense of recognition. Because we’re all falling apart.

From the few hours spent there, Brighton seemed like a genuinely functional city intertwined with a hallucinatory palace built by a dissolute prince, an old pier rotting in the English Channel, and the smell of funnel cake mingling with the broken tune of an old merry-go-round. “The people here are very indiscreet and troublesome,” said Queen Victoria in 1845. And the food is fantastic.

And a massive thank you to the very kind people who run the National Rail. They reunited me with my camera after I foolishly left it on the train. I’d spent the evening glumly kicking at the stones on the beach, thinking I’d never see it again, but the next day at the train station, a man guided me into a cluttered office and handed it to me with a smile. I nearly wept. He simply nodded and said, “It’s what we do, mate.” Later I discovered dozens of their portraits on my camera roll, and they’ve restored my faith in humanity in all kinds of ways.

One of the snapshots I found on my camera

Rod Modell – Beach

Kettle Point EP | Echocord, 2003 | Bandcamp
Old York City

Bath to York. Drizzle and highs near sixty. The sun goes down at eight o’clock, and there’s a waxing gibbous moon. We rolled into York with the clouds and the damp, and we wandered its cluttered lanes and jigsaw puzzle squares, listening to tour guides tell their flocks this town was inspired by Harry Potter because who cares anymore.

Every restaurant was booked except a lone spot next to a vape shop, and it was one of those dusty places where you know you should leave the moment you grok the peeling wallpaper and empty dining room, save for the elderly couple drowsing in their dinner plates. But hope is a powerful thing. Maybe this meal will be fantastic, a best-kept secret. But no, the food was scary, the waiters were angry, twenty minutes of silence segued to 200bpm industrial techno, and a man combed the carpet and drapes with a deafening handheld vacuum. Always trust your instincts.

Also: the British definition of “pudding” is broad and roomy, accommodating all kinds of beliefs.

The Quire at York Minster

York Minster is the largest Gothic cathedral north of the Alps, and it hangs from the sky like lace. Whenever I see these colossal palaces to God, it’s easy—and perhaps correct—to frown at all the blood and treasure hoovered up by faith-dealers to sustain a corrupted fantasy. Yet if I squint a certain way, I see something humble and profound, even a little heartbreaking: a community deciding, upon finding themselves alone and confused on a strange planet, to use their finest materials and labor to erect a space devoted to an otherworldly logic, hoping to find some answers.

At eleven o’clock, a soothing voice on a speaker filled the cathedral and encouraged us to bow our heads and pray for peace. It felt like the future.

Autechre – Bronchusevenmx24

Garbage | Warp, 1995 | Bandcamp

Because we passed through Sheffield. And it’s one of the most beautiful songs I know.

Noon in the city of Bath

London to Bath. Mostly sunny skies and highs in the upper fifties. The sun goes down at 7:57pm. 

As we pulled out of Paddington Station, I closed my eyes and enjoyed the announcements on the Great Western Railway. The artificial woman’s voice was so reassuring it was nearly narcotic. Information about our travel time. Information about refreshments. Then she told us to stay alert. “See it. Say it. Sorted!” she said, reciting the UK’s security mantra, which is just as elastic as the “See Something, Say Something” campaign in the States. (And Christ, we’ve been listening to this paranoid gibberish for twenty years now.) Maybe it’s my American ear, but there’s a sinister edge to hearing a chipper, disembodied voice say sorted. I imagine an unpleasantness quickly swept from public view, a killing in a backroom.

An hour later, we tumbled out of the train station, us tourists from all corners, and we squinted at the bright stone city of Bath, where a Roman spa from the year 60 is around the corner from a Sunglass Hut and a KFC. A mammoth 7th-century monastery is down the street from Urban Outfitters. This might be the world’s most beautiful shopping mall.

Prior William Birde’s Chantry Chapel, built in 1515

Inside the Bath Abbey, there’s a tiny chantry near the apse, about the size of a shipping container. When I stepped inside, I was alone and there was a brief moment of slippage; my brains quieted down, and I felt outside of time. Reverent, even, as I imagined myself believing in divine logic, everything classifiable and clear. The sensation fled the moment I noticed it, and I returned to the throng of people taking pictures of tombs and stone angels.

Two thousand years ago, the Romans etched their resentments into metal and cast them in the water, hoping the gods would punish those who’d done them wrong. A note about a lost pair of gloves: “The thief should lose his mind and eyes.” Like an ancient version of Twitter.

Twilight in Bath

After sunset, C. and I leaned over a bridge, snapping pictures because the internet told us this was a meaningful sight. When I lowered my camera, a man stood closer to me, grinning like a jump scare. He nudged closer, wanting to touch my shoulder and take my hand. “Get a good photo, mate? Got a good shot? Beautiful night, yeah?” Maybe he was just a lonely drunk. Perhaps he was getting ready to sort me. The creepy is always unclassifiable.

Thomas Ragsdale & Richard Arnold – On My Shoulder

Transformations I | Mysteries of the Deep, 2022 | Bandcamp

Some favorite new UK music: this beautiful neon-soaked release via Mysteries of the Deep.

One of those fine afternoons when you wander into a dusty bookstore in an unfamiliar city and come across a book by a writer you don’t know, but it harmonizes with the noises in your head and leaves you wondering about the lines between randomness, serendipity, and synchronicity.

Lawrence English – Somnambulist

Cruel Optimism | Room 40, 2017 | Bandcamp